Bush's political capital ebbs away

Posted in Other | 08-Aug-05 | Author: Ian Bremmer| Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush
NEW YORK Once a U.S. president wins a second term, his job becomes more difficult. Allies and rivals at home and abroad can see the end of his presidency and measure the drop in his political influence. Any second-term president must carefully maintain his political capital if he hopes to successfully push an agenda, and George W. Bush's capital has taken some serious hits in recent weeks.

The Karl Rove-Valerie Plame affair, for instance, has begun to undermine faith in the president's credibility. The damage is especially great for a president who has long enjoyed a reputation as a straight shooter.

But for most Americans, it's what administration officials have said about the war in Iraq that cuts deepest into the president's credibility - and therefore his political capital. Assertions that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes" have been challenged by senior brass. Promises that Iraqi elections marked a turning point in the conflict suggest to many Americans the president may not fully understand what's happening there.

Because these credibility questions are increasing, Bush now has less political capital with which to take risks. A president who can't afford to take risks is in danger of losing his relevance. That's a problem for his domestic agenda, but it's in foreign policy that the administration's dwindling reserves of capital pose the toughest problems.

First, lawmakers in both parties know a majority of Americans want a timetable for scaling back the U.S. presence in Iraq or for withdrawing the troops altogether. As next year's midterm elections draw closer, we can expect calls from both sides of the aisle for a substantial reduction in force levels - well before Iraqi security forces are capable of protecting the fledgling government from insurgents. Bush knows that the forces in Iraq most eager to trigger a civil war are watching. He will resist the pressure to withdraw as long as he can. But as public patience with his Iraq policy wanes, Bush risks losing even more political capital as U.S. casualties mount.

Leaders in Iran and North Korea are well aware of the president's predicament, too, and will now drive a much harder bargain in negotiations over their respective nuclear programs. The White House, already saddled with the conflict in Iraq, has fewer chips with which to back Iran and North Korea into a diplomatic corner. In both cases, the administration is now more likely to (grudgingly) accept an unsustainable status quo. In the longer-term, Iranian and North Korean negotiators are more likely to cross the lines the administration has drawn in the sand and provoke crises that a politically weakened president may be ill-equipped to manage.

Even U.S. allies are now less willing to cooperate with the administration. Despite recent improvements in U.S.-Saudi relations, the Saudis ignored White House pressure and refused last month to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to find out if the Saudis are developing a nuclear program. There remain no indications the Saudis are moving toward a nuclear-weapons capability, but the Saudi refusal raises doubts and reminds the administration that, even with strategic allies, its influence is increasingly limited.

The president's inability to keep his China policy on message reveals the limits of his sway over the Republican-controlled Congress. When China announced that it would revalue its currency, the administration quickly seized on the news to underline White House influence with Chinese decision makers and to head off a bipartisan Senate bill that threatened a punitive 27.5 percent tariff on imports from China if Beijing didn't change its currency regime.

On close inspection, however, there's less to China's revaluation than meets the eye. Even a substantial adjustment of the yuan's value would have negligible impact on the bilateral trade imbalance, and the Chinese currency was adjusted only 2 percent against the dollar. Further, Beijing announced that the yuan will now be pegged to a basket of currencies - without saying which currencies were in the basket or how those currencies would be weighted.

In other words, unless this currency adjustment is simply the prelude to a more significant move in the near future, the president's inability to restrain congressional threats of protectionism - and the trade war they could ignite - will return as soon as new trade-deficit figures make their way up Capitol Hill. By the time President Hu Jintao of China arrives in Washington in September, the president's biggest challenge may be damage control.

Beijing's view of U.S.-China relations doesn't help. Throughout the 1990s, the Chinese endured harsh congressional rhetoric in the run-up to trade decisions on awarding China most-favored-nation status, only to see economic clear-headedness eventually carry the day. The lesson the Chinese learned, rightly or wrongly, is that, in the end, Washington would always rather do business than talk politics.

China's dramatic economic growth only feeds this view. But China doesn't seem to recognize that politics now holds greater sway over America's China policy than at any time in the past decade. And because the president's ability to rein in anti-Chinese initiatives and protectionist sentiment in Congress is diminished, continued Chinese growth makes a sharper U.S.-Chinese rivalry - and the political risk that comes with it - much more likely.

It's hard to see how the president can stop the bleeding. Unless Dick Cheney decides to run for president and wins the Republican nomination in 2008 - a highly unlikely prospect - the next presidential election will be the first in 56 years in which neither candidate is a sitting president or vice president. The wide-open field means neither party has a compelling interest in defending the least popular aspects of the president's agenda.

It's also hard to see how U.S. troops can remain indefinitely in Iraq or how their near-term withdrawal could produce a result on the ground that vindicates the president's decision to invade.

It's said that second-term presidents have 18 months to govern before they're dismissed as lame ducks. Unless the current dynamic changes, George W. Bush may not be so lucky.

(Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.)